The installation of Pope Francis i on March 19 will serve as one more step toward healing the breach between Catholics and Orthodox Christians. The ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew i, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, will attend the service. It will be the first time the spiritual leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church has attended the inauguration mass for a pope in almost 1,000 years.
The last time such a meeting occurred was before 1054—the year that the Great Schism took place. The Great Schism saw the dividing of the Catholic Church into east and west. The western branch was situated in Rome and held the name of the Roman Catholic Church. The Eastern Church had its headquarters in Constantinople. Constantinople is now known as Istanbul, the former capital of Turkey.
The attendance of Bartholomew i reflects the progressive steps toward unification that have been achieved under Pope Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict xvi. Pope Benedict visited the Turkish capital in 2006. He explained that his visit was designed to stimulate “mutual understanding and the quest of full unity.” But the meeting of these two religious leaders may not have been possible at all had it not been for the work of Pope Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul ii. He was the first pope to travel to an Eastern Orthodox country since the days of the Great Schism. He began traveling to other Orthodox nations such as Ukraine, and opened more dialogue with the Orthodox community. His actions laid the foundation for Pope Benedict.
During the reign of Pope John Paul ii, the Trumpet stated that, “Although Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism still seek to negotiate a middle ground for agreement, this pope is pulling out all stops to lay the groundwork for roping the wayward eastern wing of the church back into its fold.”
It would appear that Pope Francis is uniquely suited to follow in the footsteps of John Paul ii and Benedict. According to the Associated Press,
Francis is familiar with Orthodox traditions from 14 years of heading the Argentine church’s commission on Eastern Rite Christians, which is within the Catholic fold but follows Orthodox religious customs, including some married clergy in lower ranks. …
For Orthodox, the new pope’s choice of Francis is also important for its reference to the Italian town of Assisi, where Pope John Paul ii began conferences encouraging interfaith dialogue and closer bonds among Christians.
Yet the two religions, Orthodox and Roman Catholic, are still divided over a number of issues. One of the key issues is the rule and power of the pope. The Orthodox believe that a pope is primus inter pares, or the first among equals. He rules as the head of the church. The Roman Catholics believe in papal supremacy. This is when the pope has complete power over the entire church and unhindered power therein. It is this power that remains a serious point of division.
Representatives of the two religions met on Oct. 13, 2007, in Italy, to draft a document declaring that, historically, the pope had primacy over all Catholic and Orthodox bishops. Since that time, progress has been made, step by step, to bring the two groups together.
The dividing issues run deeper than this one point of contention, yet Bartholomew i is in Rome, attending a ceremony that apparently goes against his beliefs. Bartholomew’s attendance at the inauguration of the man whom Catholics believe rules supreme shows his willingness to work toward reunification.
The Trumpet has long proclaimed the prophesied reunification of the Catholic Church with the Orthodox (Isaiah 47:8). The installment of Pope Francis will highlight another step toward healing the divide between east and west. Watch as the newly elected Pope Francis follows in the path of his predecessors, alive and dead, as he works toward a unified church. Read “Returning to the Fold” to understand how the Catholic Church is working to unite Christians under the pope. ▪